THUNDER BAY -- A mandatory mask requirement for enclosed public spaces will go into effect next Friday in the Thunder Bay District.
Dr. Janet Demille, medical officer of health at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, made the announcement on Thursday, saying she made the decision in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as the region enters Stage 3 of Ontario's reopening plan.
"We have done well in navigating the reopening process so far; however, there have been outbreaks in other jurisdictions which have impacted workplaces, businesses and the community," DeMille said.
"That risk is there for us too. As we continue to reopen, there will be increased opportunities for people to have closer contact with one another in enclosed spaces where transmission is more likely to happen. People and good also travel daily through this region. It is important that we adopt all necessary measures to protect ourselves and our communities against the spread of COVID-19 in our area."
Stage 3 includes the return of indoor dining in restaurants and service in bars, the reopening of gyms and the return of movie theatres, albeit in limited capacities.
DeMille said the rule will apply to any type of retail outlet, restaurants and bars and other public settings where there might be increased contact with other people.
"(Stage 3) was one of the big things that did prompt it at this time," DeMille said. "Officially tomorrow we are open in Stage 3, which means other places of business are going to be opening up or opening up in the next couple of days or couple of weeks. That was certainly impetus for us doing this.
"But it was also that there has been increasing consideration in taking this kind of measure in the province of Ontario, but even more broadly in the country -- for example in Quebec. I even notice it's happening in the States and in particular in Minnesota, for example, with Duluth moving forward with it."
DeMille said she weighed both the pros and the cons of enacting the regulation and said as she increasingly thought about the upcoming months and the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19, she decided it was best for everyone, especially with schools reopening in some form in September.
"Really, we have to adopt and adapt to this new normal. The wearing of masks, there's evidence to show it can reduce the spread of COVID, especially if many people in the population are actually doing that," DeMille said, adding it's not a step she took lightly.
"I've had a challenging couple of weeks in looking at considering this because I know what it means to essentially impose something on people."
As for enforcement, DeMille said the plan is to work with local businesses to engage them in a conversation about the value of mask wearing.
DeMille said there are exemptions under the Act.
"Not everybody can wear a mask or a face covering," she said. "Individuals with certain medical issues or impairments or disabilities may not actually be able to wear (one) and they are exempt. And they do not need to provide proof of that exemption. It is based on good faith, really.
"It is much more difficult to target individuals around that. So it's really going to be us working with businesses to try to implement this."
Children under two are also exempt, as are children under five with developmental challenges who refuse to wear a mask and cannot be persuaded by their caregiver.
DeMille said the health unit is prepared to support businesses in ensuring the regulation is adhered to by the public.
The regulation will apply to all employees and members of the public and it is being issued under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. The rule comes into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, July 24.